IERG conference

Conference feedback: Making lunch together


More feedback (& my commentary) from my presentation at the IERG conference last week! For the original posts on our (crazy fun) practice of making lunch together, see this long initial one, and this pithier one.

Making lunch together

My own young adult children can not cook thanks to my control-freakish nature! My bad. I wish I could remedy that by turning back the clock.

Ha! That makes perfect sense.

Perfect sense, I mean, because teaching kids to cook takes time, and is dangerous. It takes time (not to mention saintly patience) to teach kids to cook. And when you leave them to their own devices in the kitchen, there's always the chance they'll burn the house down.

Our society has seen wisdom in allowing professionals to take on a similar task: teaching our children to drive. It's time-intensive, and boy, is it scary.

My hat's off to parents who choose to teach their own kids to drive. But for the rest of us, there are driving instructors.

The same thing makes sense with cooking, I think. Only better — once the kids learn to cook with some skill, they can cook together with their parents at home.

Hot dang!


Cultural content: gyoza, dumpling, etc. Could lead into history...

Yes, absolutely! (How fun, too, to not just learn about the culture the food comes from, but the history of the food in that culture.)

Many kids don't know certain foods.

Y'know, I forget about this. There's more low-hanging fruit than I'm prone to acknowledge: how much fun will it be just to introduce kids to, say, sorbet? Or a scone? Or a wild rice soup?


Stories about how spices have affected history...





Food sensitivities, religous restrictions, etc.

Man have I thought a lot about this. The conclusion I've come to is that we'll need to mostly handle this on a case-by-case basis.

(The following thoughts apply to our future school outside Seattle — I won't try to speak for Lee and his school on Hilton Head. Different cultures call for, unsurprisingly, different food norms!)

Since we're taking seriously the ability of food to knit together, community, our reflexive move should be to be as inclusive as possible: if one student can't eat peanuts, then we should avoid peanuts in our meals. I presume there will be exceptions to that — times when we'll make a dish, but serve it on the side, so everyone can participate in the main meal.

As a general rule, I think we should de-emphasize meat. When we prepare it, it should be sourced from a farm that we're happy to have our kids visit. (Whatever the other virtues of industrial meat production, it serves to distance people from their food. We want to war against that.)

Lee, your thoughts?


This was a point that participants made repeatedly: how will we ever have time to do all of these fun curricular things, if we're making food every day? Some participants were quite pessimistic on our ability to pull this off; others were quite optimistic. I appreciated hearing both sides of that.

Lee, here are my thoughts as to how we need to approach the "we're trying to squeeze an ocean into a swimming pool" problem.

  1. A lot of these fun curricular things are done by individual students, during their independent work time — not as a whole class, together. So students will do some of them daily, but others perhaps weekly — or even less frequently than that.
  2. We can have students form teams, and take turns making lunch. One team can make the food, another team can prepare the table, another team can clean up afterwards. This'll limit the time that any one group spends on lunch.
  3. We should guide students to get faster, as they gain experience. I'm not thinking about "fast-food" speed — that's too quick to get kids to think about the chemistry and biology of what they're doing — but a faster pace than they otherwise might fall into. Speeding up could be particular help toward guiding students into a flow state. (Imagine this: cooking lunch as a group flow state. Oh happy experiment we're embarking on!)
  4. We should make sure that our heavy skills-building periods are intense. I've heard this from many homeschoolers, and as a tutor I can confirm it: when students want to learn, and the teacher is prepared, a lot of learning can happen very quickly. In order to justify these other curriculum aspects that could be maligned as "froofy" (cooking, handwriting, place-study, people in your neighborhood…), we need to guarantee that the academic core is strong. (Measuring student progress will be useful here.)
  5. Lee, how long will your school days at Island Academy be? With our Seattle-area school, I'm interested in looking into a longer school day. (Especially if we can abolish/restrict homework.)

More land-based cooking: take part in a hunt, field dressing, skinning, prep, & cooking/smoking, etc. Bridge traditional methods with modern culinary practices.

Whoa. I'm having a hard time imagining pulling this off. (I can only imagine a mother in our office screaming "WHAT DID YOU TEACH MY SON TO DO TO A SQUIRREL?")

But: I love it. I agree that, at least theoretically, this would be a very good thing to do with kids (at least those who aren't ethical vegetarians).

As I continue to mull over this, I wonder if there are a few halfway-steps that we could definitely do:

  • Have kids grow some of their food. (I didn't mention this at the conference, but it should become a very important part of our school.)
  • Collect wild mushrooms. (Dangerous if we don't do it right, so we should do research, and then go out with an expert.)


Can kids choose what they make?

Boy, how did I not think of this before? Yes, they should have a voice in this. It shouldn't be a totally free choice on their part (for one reason, part of our purpose is to take kids outside of their comfort zones), but they should be part of the steering committee for what we're preparing in future weeks and months.

Lee, how can we allow students choice in what foods we'll be eating?


All right, that's it for now. I'll be going camping for the next few days (for the record, we're bringing along our own industrially-prepared food!), but when I come back, I'll be hashing through the feedback I got on our Song-a-day curriculum, and our People in your neighborhood curriculum.

And then, I'll actually start talking about new things!

Conference feedback — public speaking


I'll continue to post about the wonderful feedback I got from participants at the IERG Conference this last week. (Note: If you're interested in our school, you'll want to consider coming to next summer's conference — held in Vancouver, B.C., the first few days of July, 2016.) The following are written comments I got after presenting our ideas about cultivating public speaking superpowers in our kids.

Public speaking

It might be interesting to have another perspective to public speaking… read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. There's a TED talk, too.

Ah, I've been wanting to read this book for years, and am now one step much closer! Thanks, anonymous wise commenter!

I'll say this for now: I think that getting all students skilled at public speaking would be even more useful for introverts than for extroverts. The typical extrovert can pick up public speaking abilities — and might even be prone to, just in the normal course of her life. The typical introvert, however, might rather be eaten by eels than stand in front of a crowd. And yet (as Susan Cain found out, once she rocked the TED stage) the benefits for being able to do so can be tremendous.

I should still, however do what our commenter suggested: re-think the whole question of public performance from the perspective of an introvert. (By the way, we endeavor to build our school on neurodiversity — extroverts and introverts; calm people and ADHD wall-crawlers; empaths and people on the autism spectrum. And there are a lot of anti-neurodiversity assumptions built even into progressive, "whole-child" education — such as that kids should always be working in teams.) We need to pursue this carefully.)

One-minute speeches on pre-determined topics & working up to impromptu speeches (pick out of a hat).

Yes! Let me re-state that more generally: we should work from a pre-designed speaking curriculum that starts easy (and fun), and only gradually builds in difficulty. Toastmasters has a children's division — Gavel Clubs. They start with games. I've been meaning to snoop around their curriculum — Lee, count on me to report back to you soon on what I find!

(Oh, by the way — it actually can be easier to work up to pre-planned speeches — the opposite of what our wonderful commenter suggested. Planning is stressful, and imagining yourself on the stage, even moreso. That's the way it works for most adults, anyhoo — I'll check to see if the same is true of kids.)

Will it include debate? drama? great speeches of the past? (e.g. Martin Luther King's "I Had a Dream")

See, this is why it was so worthwhile to float these ideas in front of clever people — yes, we should totally design debate and drama into this! And great historical speeches! (In fact, I think savoring great historical/literary speeches could be a good way for us to cultivate a culture of good speaking.)

Right now, I have no idea how to do this, but it's tucked away in the back of my mind. Lee?

Does helping each child become a good public speaker select against 'introvert' qualities (which can be very important) or would there not be any direct conflict… hmm...

Wow — wow. I'll take this question into my reading of Cain's book (and, what the heck, my re-watching of her TED talk, later today.)

How to resist powerful "beautiful" public speakers (e.g. Hitler and his future heirs).

Yeah — I like this! Arming oneself with rhetorical abilities helps us see through others' rhetorical abilities. "Defensive public speaking".

This next one was written in response to the last:

Should the world be run by people who can move a crowd...

Ah! If someone changes the world to make this no longer true, then I vow to consider taking public speaking out of the curriculum!

Dale Carnegie's program on public speaking might be a useful resource. Also Toastmasters for activity ideas?

I've just added Carnegie's book (Stand and Deliver) to my library queue! Thanks! And, as a proud Toastmaster (really, I believe in the power of anyone to become an amazing speaker because I'm in a Toastmasters group who routinely pulls this trick off), I'm excited to bring what we do to kids.

Love the idea of giving students life skills — this will definitely set them up for success.

Agreed! And "success" as defined a whole lotta different ways, way beyond the workplace. (I've become a much more confident person in the last few years, and I suspect that's due in large part to Toastmasters.)

No matter how many times you perform on a stage, there always seems to be a little fear when you step onto that stage...

This commenter is right — for most people, at least. (A few people really do seem to entirely lose their fear, but they're in the minority.) I overspoke when I presented, saying something like "students can lose all their fear". I'll try to stop saying things like that. The general idea, however, really is true, and powerfully so: we can make the horror of speaking (so bad it detracts from the speaking, even when it doesn't debilitate the speaker entirely) extinct, once and for all. — excellent unit with TED talks on public speaking.

I think the commenter is referring to this unit (I've just e-mailed the person I believe wrote that to make sure). I'll look into it!

In any case, this comment suggests two things to me —

  1. We can learn a lot about public speaking from TED talks — both speeches that are about public speaking, and all the other speeches. We can even learn from speeches that are done poorly — in fact, we might be able to learn more from poorly-done speeches! It suddenly strikes me that we should make a plan to bring lots of TED talks into the school week. I do my daily boring 7-minute workout (the link is to a NYTimes article) while watching a TED talk — we might similarly pair up something dull with that.)
  2. We should consider encouraging our teachers to make their lesson plans public, as this website allows them to do. Eventually I'd like to publish whole giant sets of what we teach in a special site that we give for free to the world — but in the interim, I wonder if we want to encourage teachers to do this for private money. It'd be a way to (1) get these lessons out to the world, and (2) get our teachers to polish their curriculum. If we do this, we'd need to explicitly work out the weird legal situation having to do with the ownership of the curriculum — it partially belongs to the school (because we'll be developing the broad strokes of it) and partially to the teacher (because they'll be refining and personalizing it). Anyhow, that's something to think about.

Do all students need to become public speakers?

Oh, a powerful question! I think that the limited answer is "no", and that the expansive answer is "yes".

No, not all students need to become public speakers in the professional sense. "Public speaker" is a particular job that one can put on a business card. There's a limited need for that sort of person.

But everyone can benefit from having the skills that being able to speak publicy brings. Public speaking brings confidence (at least to those who were scared of it before). It brings the power to clarify: to prune down a thicket of thoughts into a single message that anyone can follow. (It actually might do this better than writing, which can afford to be more complex than speaking.) It brings presentation skills: how can you shape your body to express certain emotions? How can you shape your voice? How can you connect, or disconnect, with your eyes? It even brings (or supports) one of the most powerful skills: story-telling.

It strikes me, actually, that all the skills in Egan's Mythic toolkit could be aided with students' ability to communicate verbally to a crowd.

Tomorrow, I'll share and respond to comments on our history curriculum!

Wonderful feedback from a wonderful conference! (Question-posing)


I attended the glorious IERG (Imaginative Education Research Group) conference these last few days, where I presented a workshop on some of the curriculum practices that I've been posting to this blog! After presenting our ideas to about a dozen wonderful people, I asked them to scribble their radically honest feedback on some posterboards I scattered around the room. The transriptions of their comments (with some grammar corrections and clarifications) are beneath the jump!

Question-posing / Answer-hunting

Big questions about cosmology bridged with traditional stories & narratives.

I think this commenter is saying "incorporate many cultures' stories about the beginning of the universe into your Big Spiral History curriculum, and use those stories to ask the questions that matter!" If I'm interpreting this rightly, then check! We're doin' it!

Questions are so important, but you can have a question on some "content". So, productive questions are generated in the "quest for some content". So I question making question posing an independent period.

Ah, I love this! Of course we do want kids to be asking questions throughout the school day — in math and history and everything! There's some danger that other people (or even the kids, and future teachers) could interpret a separate question-posing period as meaning that we shouldn't ask questions thoughout the learning experience.

Any thoughts on how we should delineate this?

Philosophy for Children.

Yes — and actually, I attended the semi-annual international Philosophy for Children conference earlier this week! Earlier I had posted that we wouldn't have a special P4C (oh, we educators and our acronyms) period — that we'd rather infuse it through the day — though now I'm wondering if that's wise. Maybe we should have a period a few times a week that just aims at philosophical conversation. Or maybe we should infuse our fiction curriculum (which I've yet to post on) with philosophical pondering.

"What questions did you ask today?": an alternative for parents to ask when their kids come home from school, instead of "What did you do in school today?"

OH MY GOSH YES! This is great way of engaging parents into the educational process!

An interesting question comes from this: should we encourage students to take their commonplace books home, or to not take them home?

At some point Skype an expert... from anywhere! After kids get great questions ready!

Yes! Why didn't I think of this?!

Imagine that kids had gotten interested in what fire is. Though this is a simple question, it's doesn't have a simple answer (or, at least, its simple answer is not at all intuitive, and requires an in-depth understanding of a lot of chemistry).

The kids shouldn't ask an expert when they're just starting to explore the question. First they should debate the question among themselves and parents, then they should look for explanations in books, and maybe finally they should look for online sources (this video may be the best on the web).

Only after they've gone through all that, and continue to discuss the matter, should we bring in an outside expert. And imagine the questions the kids would have at that point: questions about real chemistry, asked with an understanding with what the "book answer" says, and with a understanding that they don't understand what it means.

Our grade schoolers may be able to ask more scientifically-brilliant questions than undergraduates.

Maybe I'm being too optimistic: we'll see. But I think we can use teleconferencing to help our kids attain a level of understanding far, far beyond what most K-12 students are able to even imagine.

If asking an expert turns out to be as powerful as we hope it is, we might want to cultivate a small number of experts with whom we have regular calls — maybe once a month, for 15 minutes or so. (I'm imagining a chemist, a historian, a mathematician, a biologist, an engineer, and so on.) We could award those experts a teaching honorific — something for them to feel pride in, and put on their C.V.

Instructions/Background on how to develop a good question or just go with intrinsic abilities and develop along the way?

Great question — I think the answer is to start with kids' skill in asking questions, and tease out an art and science to asking better questions.

There are a few frameworks I think we'd be wise to consider — The Right Question's framework most of all. (We should probably collect a list of potential frameworks.) There might be wisdom in having a framework ready to bring in shortly, as soon as we can identify the ways in which our students' questions are being stymied.

T'morrow, I'll post on the responses we got from the Public Speaking curriculum.